THAILAND: Thaksin’s Pro-Poor Politics Haunt Poll Campaign

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By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Dec 10 (IPS) – For the past 15 months, Thailand’s conservative political elites, who profited most from last year’s coup, rallied around the theme that populist policies lead to corruption and spread their idea through the media, public speeches and at university seminars.

The elites see themselves as the saviours of the country after prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was forced out of power by the military in the Sep. 19 putsch. Visible support for this claim was evident in the days soon after this South-east Asian nation’s 18th coup. The soldiers on the streets were greeted with flowers and with ice cream.

It was even echoed in May this year, when the elites led the cheers after the party Thaksin led — Thai Rak Thai (TRT – Thais Love Thai) — was found guilty of violating the country’s election laws during a controversial April 2006 general election. A special military-appointed tribunal banned the TRT and its leaders from politics for five years.

The assumption at the time was Thaksin would not be back soon as a political player, nor would his style of government, which the elite and Bangkok’s well-heeled middle class accused of being corrupt, authoritarian and showing disrespect for Thailand’s revered monarch. These charges were the rallying cries of anti-Thaksin street protests in the capital that attracted tens of thousands during the first half of 2006.
But if these elites, with their strong pro-military, pro-bureaucracy and pro-monarchist credentials, are having sleepless nights it is because rural voters have not fallen for the Bangkok-centred mantra that Thaksin is a villain who should not be accorded a place on the political landscape.

This is becoming increasingly clear as campaigning for the first general election since the coup enters its final stretch. Opinion polls and surveys ahead of the Dec. 23 elections for the 480-seat parliament suggest that the rural voters, a majority of whom are from poorer farming families in the north-east, are still drawn to Thaksin as their benefactor than the entrenched elite in this kingdom.

Hence, the newly-formed People’s Power Party (PPP), which has emerged as the inheritor of the TRT’s political legacy, is tipped to win comfortably in the north-east Isaan region. And a triumph there matters much to determine which party will form the next government, since some 130 parliamentary seats are up for grabs.

‘’The PPP has a lot of support in Isaan. This is because of the strong political foundation Thaksin built during his time in office,’’ Bantorn Ondam, an advisor to Assembly of the Poor, a network of grassroots groups, told IPS. ‘’You have to give credit to him for achieving what other political parties have failed to do with the poor.’’
Central to this relationship between Thaksin, who was a billionaire telecommunication tycoon before becoming the premier, and the country’s largest constituency, the rural poor, was the implementation of a string of welfare policies. This package ranged from a universal health care scheme and a debt moratorium to soft loans to boost village economies.

It was a programme that won the admiration of his critics among academics and other political parties. The TRT was recognised as the first political party, in a country with many feudal trappings, that placed the concerns of the poor at the top of its political agenda and then delivered on the promises. And the poor who stood to gain voted overwhelmingly for the TRT in the 2001 and 2005 general elections,

consequently making the party the largest and the most popular in Thailand’s history.
‘’The Thai Rak Thai’s strategy opened the doors to make the poor feel that they had something to bargain for,’’ says Giles Ungpakorn, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. ‘’The poor discovered the power they had in their numbers. So they were naturally drawn to Thaksin’s pro-poor policies.’’

‘’Bangkok’s elites do not want to admit to this,’’ he added during an interview. ‘’They still say that populism is corruption and that if the government offers things to the people it is bad. It only shows that they are scared that the People’s Power Party will win the elections.’’

But the other political parties in the fray have extended more respect to the welfare programmes introduced by Thaksin, who is currently living in exile in London. They are promising the poor a buffet of options to lift them up the social and economic ladder during the current poll campaign.

The Democrat Party, the country’s oldest party, has tried to attract the rural voters with a platform that offers to assist in the production of the famed Jasmine rice, which is grown in Isaan, establish special economic zones, and implement stronger border-trade progammes. ‘’The north-east has huge problems with water. We want to spend 300 billion baht (nine billion US dollars) for water supply,’’ Kiat Sittheeamorn, a leading member of the Democrats, told a group of journalists.

The commitment of the Democrats to try and out do the PPP in courting the rural poor is understandable, since the latest polls increasingly reveal that these two parties have emerged as the front-runners heading into the general elections. ‘’The winner or loser will be determined in the north-east,’’ says Kiat.

But even that prospect may not be the case as the junta-backed bureaucrats mount what seems like an 11th hour effort to stop the PPP from enjoying its edge with the rural poor ahead of the polls. On Saturday, ‘The Nation’ newspaper reported that the elections commission will nquire into an allegation that Thaksin had violated his ban from Thai politics by ‘’helping the PPP’s campaign through the distribution of five million CDs in north-eastern provinces.’’

If found guilty, the PPP could be dissolved. And the rural poor will be without a political voice, as was the case after the TRT was dissolved in May this year.

THAILAND: Thaksin’s Pro-Poor Politics Haunt Poll Campaign

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